Epidural Anesthesia: Myths & Misconceptions
Epidural anesthesia is a common anesthetic that numbs the spinal nerves and prevents pain signals from traveling to the brain. An epidural is commonly used during cesarean delivery (C-section), a surgical procedure used to deliver a baby through incisions in the abdomen and uterus.
Administering an epidural requires the insertion of a small, flexible tube called a catheter near the base of the spine. Through the catheter, the anesthesia medicine is delivered nonstop, so even while conscious, you will feel no pain in that area. Once administered, an epidural usually takes only 10 to 20 minutes to take effect.
Creating your birth plan is stressful enough without worrying about whether or not to use an epidural. Debunking some commonly held beliefs can help clarify your choice.
Myth: An epidural will slow down labor.
For most women, an epidural significantly improves the entire birthing experience from start to finish. There's no research to prove that epidurals slow down the labor process. In fact, epidurals may speed up the first stage of labor by letting a woman relax so the process can progress.
Ideally, an epidural provides enough medication to alleviate pain while still allowing you to feel the pressure that signals you to start pushing. At the end of labor, an epidural gives you back control to push gradually and avoid tearing.
Myth: An epidural increases the chance of a C-section.
C-sections are more likely to be required in mothers over age 45 and those with large babies (who are overdue or big from gestational diabetes). Choosing to get an epidural does not increase the chances of requiring a C-section.
If you have trouble knowing when to push as the result of an epidural, your doctor may assist the birth using forceps. The team of doctors and nurses will help guide you on when to push since they'll be tracking your contractions on a monitor.
Myth: An epidural can permanently paralyze you.
Epidurals are placed below the spinal cord's termination, making any risk of paralysis from a spinal cord puncture virtually nonexistent. It's possible to experience some short-term back pain at the site of your epidural placement. However, this should resolve within a couple of days.
The chances of any lasting side effects are extremely rare. Most women have a "walking epidural," meaning they're still fully mobile while on the epidural. To err on the side of caution, your doctor will likely have you use a wheelchair until the medication wears off.
Myth: An epidural will seriously harm the baby.
Unsubstantiated claims about epidurals include increasing the risk of autism or cerebral palsy. This alarmist misinformation needlessly causes hesitation for moms seeking effective pain management for childbirth. Both the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society of Anesthesiologists have denounced these misleading myths.
By controlling your pain, epidurals can improve blood and oxygen flow to your baby. A potential adverse effect is temporary sleepiness in your newborn, making them slower to latch on for breastfeeding. Part of getting an epidural includes fetal monitoring—your doctor continuously tracks the baby's heart rate to prevent any serious complications.
Feeling good about your decision
No one can decide whether an epidural is the right choice for you. But it's essential to talk with your physician and make your decision based on fact rather than fiction. There are some risks associated with epidurals, mainly a drop in maternal blood pressure, which occurs in 10 to 20 percent of cases. Luckily, constant monitoring enables your doctor to act quickly and address issues right away.
With more than 60 percent of women choosing to have some form of epidural during childbirth, you're in good company if that's what you decide.